Abandoned air strip built to train World War II aviators

Dr. David Bergquist, a retired college dean, looks at the far end of the abandoned 2,500-foot air strip built east of Milford during World War II. Not many people know that the air strip exists.
Richard R. Shaw
Dr. David Bergquist, a retired college dean, looks at the far end of the abandoned 2,500-foot air strip built east of Milford during World War II. Not many people know that the air strip exists.
Posted Dec. 13, 2012, at 2:53 p.m.

My mother savored a juicy Maine mystery, and so do I. She planted in my young mind a love of oddball museums and moss-covered graveyards. Thanks to her enthusiasm, I still enjoy driving down country roads in search of hidden history.

But even Mom, who died in 1982, might not believe what I discovered in the woods last summer. Wedged between the Stud Mill Road and Pickerel Pond, 10 miles east of Milford, is an abandoned 2,500-foot airstrip built during World War II. It truly is one of Penobscot County’s best-kept secrets.

Aided by Google searches and GPS coordinates, I finally located the ghostly ribbon of macadam and concrete, cracked in spots but still recognizable as a practice site for medium bombers and fighters from Bangor’s Dow Field. A deer skittered across the runway while I kicked up empty shell casings and rusted hardware. Only the chug-chug of an RV and a passing pulp truck shattered the tranquility.

The airstrip mystery began to unfold two years ago at a Bangor Adult Education seminar hosted by Dr. David Bergquist, a retired college dean who writes and lectures about the city’s war effort. My ears pricked up when he mentioned a landing strip northeast of Bangor.

“The Memphis Belle’s crew may have trained there in 1942!” he exclaimed, alluding to the storied B-17 bomber that originated at Dow Field and reportedly was named over beers in a downtown bar. “The airfield may be near Bradley or Milford.”

“A mystery in search of a solution,” I murmured, and a research project was born. After meeting with Bergquist and consulting online sources, I unearthed proof of the Milford strip’s existence.

The first clues were on Paul Freeman’s Web site http://members.tripod.com/airfields_freeman/ME/Airfields_ME_N.htm, which is devoted to northern Maine’s abandoned and little known airfields. It lists the GPS coordinates as 44.98 North and 68.47 West. Another useful Web site is http://coldwarrelics.com/milford_airfield.

Mainers such as Gus LeBlanc share their airstrip memories on Freeman’s site. LeBlanc recalls seeing the “Milford Air Force Auxiliary Airfield” in the 1960s and ’70s while growing up in Old Town. Still visible were remnants of a 1953 Air Force survival school and a “slide for life” training structure, long since demolished, as well as a large wooden pyramid that served as a bombing target. LeBlanc also claims the site was used briefly at the end of World War II to house German POWs since the Houlton POW camp was full.

It took Bergquist and me two tries to find the airfield. We found that his Mercury Milan is no match for pockmarked back roads. Lacking a GPS device on our first visit, the strip’s exact location eluded us as we overshot the County Road in Milford, the most direct route east to the St. Regis Road, part of the Stud Mill Road, where the site is located.

The following week, with the help of Bergquist’s Hermon neighbor, Steve Dyer, we tried again and found our target. Dyer’s heavy pickup sailed over the gravel County Road that slices through Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.

After 10 miles, the County Road intersects with the St. Regis Road, which we followed to the right for 1.5 miles before stopping at a yellow gate on our left. The farthest airfield access point is through another gate leading to a youth conservation camp.

With Bergquist as our guide and Mark Smist, of Hermon, along for the ride, we walked the entire airstrip. At its easternmost tip, macadam turns to concrete, the probable site of barracks and other buildings.

“I think this field was built around 1942 as an auxiliary training site for Dow Field,” Bergquist said. “It was secure and easy to find from the air, with Pickerel and Crocker ponds as anchors. Plus it was only a 20-minute flight from Bangor.”

Young Army Air Corps pilots probably slept here and may even have snagged a pickerel or two before flying to Europe to battle Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Bergquist said the strip’s most celebrated visitors may have been the crew of the Memphis Belle, a Boeing-built bomber that was delivered in September 1942 to the 91st Bomb Group at Dow Field.

The Flying Fortress was deployed to Prestwick, Scotland, on Sept. 30 after possibly practicing bomb runs over the bog south of the airstrip where targets were set up. Other bomber crews who died in combat may have whiled away the airborne tedium by pondering their Maine woods training. On this crystal-clear day in 2012, with its azure sky, one could almost imagine overhead the drone of a bomber’s radial engines as it practiced and prepared for war.

“Look, here’s a white stripe on the old runway that probably dates to World War II,” Bergquist said, while Dyer, Smist, and I hurried to have a look.

He said the airfield was abandoned around 1952 in favor of longer Cold War strips in towns such as Deblois in Washington County. The mammoth new B-52 Stratofortress, soon to arrive in Bangor, used up more runway than available at the Milford strip and another airfield in Winterport. Since then, the Milford field has been used for Air Force survival training and by target shooters, RV enthusiasts, and model airplane buffs.

Visitors should respect the Milford airfield’s historic legacy and mind the “no trespassing” signs. With winter approaching, make sure you’re in a rugged vehicle; otherwise warm weather might be a better time to walk a piece of World War II history.

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